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The Ultimate Professional Development

Nobody would accuse Scott of being an ineffective teacher. He has a clean-shaven head and well-pressed dress shirt and tie. His calm demeanor and busy students make it seem like he effortlessly expands minds on a daily basis. It was my great pleasure to meet this particular teacher and his particularly high-functioning classroom on a visit to Brooklyn International High School in October of 2010.

Teaching in a school devoted to serving the needs of English language learners from across the world, Scott taught in a way that might have seemed unconventional. Learners used to understanding teachers as providers of knowledge might have been caused discomfort at first.

On the day I walked into Scott’s classroom, every one of his social studies students was engaged — a challenge often noticeable enough in an environment where students’ needs are so diverse. What I was most impressed by, though, was that no more than three students were working on the same task.

As I made my way through the room looking at students’ work and asking questions, I was amazed to see students creating posters, writing essays, having academic conversations, or tutoring others; all as a means of demonstrating learning of the same material. In the middle of the room Scott stood taking notes as one student after another stepped up to defend the learning he or she had accomplished in the unit the class was concluding.

To the layman, it may have appeared as if Scott had merely be blessed with a batch of phenomenal students. To the aspiring expert teacher, the distinguished skill and dedication necessary to create this kind of classroom learning space — done during, but more often outside of class time (e.g. curriculum planning, parent conferences, diagnostic assessments, relationship building, classroom culture and routines development, professional development around effective strategies for English language learners in the social studies content area) — was inspiring.

I left Brooklyn International so excited that the next day I spent nearly 15 minutes relating my observations to colleagues at my school in the Bronx. We decided that on the teacher effectiveness rubric being used to assess us, a rating entitled “Scott” should be available beyond “distinguished.”

I tell this story because it so nicely encapsulates one of the things about working in New York that so vividly stands out in my memory: the opportunity to improve with the best.

I offer my assistant principal as another example.

The first time I met Liz, she grilled me not on how many years I’d been teaching or the kind of personality I had in the classroom or my favorite instructional strategies, but the last book I read. We had a lengthy conversation about the purpose of social studies education and how that purpose varied depending on the school environment and students.

Liz and our principal set aside money for professional development and time for teacher collaboration in a way I’d never seen in any other school I’d worked in. She stepped in my class at least a few times a month, not to evaluate or suggest changes in my style, but to listen to the students learn and co-teach from time to time. During this time, she taught me to teach students who’d only been speaking English for a few years how to make meaning out of parts of a complex text like Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith — a feat I’d found challenging with native English speakers.

A few other things I learned from Liz? Great writing is about great thinking. School is an apprenticeship in learning; students should be learning primarily how to learn. Teach content just slightly above the class’s most advanced learner, create structures for the learning to trickle down, and you will have an effective means of differentiation.

I taught for four years before moving to New York, often feeling like I was coming up short finding useful ways of improving my practice. My experiences in New York advanced my teaching quickly, and I found myself on a whole new level, exploring new pedagogical subtleties I hadn’t previously been aware of.

While everyone in the city might not be lucky enough to have such a competent administrator or visit the classroom of a truly master teacher, New York, as it does with many professions, offers teachers the opportunity to work with many on the field’s forefront. Take the time to work with these professionals, and New York City is the ultimate professional development experience.

James Boutin taught in New York City for several years and now teaches in a small school associated with the Coalition of Essential Schools in Washington State. This piece originally appeared on his blog, An Urban Teacher’s Education.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.